December 1999 : Cape Verdes and the Atlantic



A belated Merry Christmas and Happy New Millennium from us - in Barbados !!!

This has been a most unusual December for us. Instead of the usual frantic rushing around with Christmas preparations and festivities, we have been exploring the Atlantic - first the Cape Verde Islands and then the great ocean itself.

We enjoyed a fascinating ten days or so in the Cape Verdes - a country we had previously barely known existed. Situated out in the Atlantic about 300 miles west of Senegal, the country consists of ten major islands, with a total land mass something less than the county of Devon, but spread over an area of 22,000 square miles. Many of the islands are barren and it is hard to imagine how the people came there, survive and stay - but they do, and are cheerful, friendly and helpful as well. The islands vary considerably - stark and arid in the east and those to the west far greener - all beautiful. The country seems poised on the brink of big time tourism, with fabulous empty beaches and great hiking potential in extraordinary mountain terrain.

We visited four of the islands, calling in first and very briefly at Sal the most north-easterly to complete entry formalities, before moving on to Boavista 36 miles south. This tiny island (12 square miles) is one of the least developed. It is barren and beautiful, covered in Sahara-like sand dunes with clumps of palm trees, backed by a range of miniature mountains. Our anchorage at the capital, Sal Rei was idyllic, with the little town lying invitingly to the north, a tiny desert island to the west and a bay of sand dunes sweeping around to the east and south. The laid back and ramshackle little town of 3,500 inhabitants was our first introduction to rural third world Africa - quite different to anywhere we had been before. Despite their great poverty, we were made very welcome by the locals - although found it hard to replenish our food supplies from the rudimentary 'shops' - quite tricky to find in the front rooms of some of the houses, with little piles of tired looking fruits and vegetables set out on the floor. Anchored in crystal clear water this was the perfect place for swimming and generally chilling out after our long trip. Or it would have been, had we not been struck by Hurricane Wallace - Chris in spring-cleaning mode - cleaning, scrubbing and sanding Perdika to pristine perfection!

After several days in Boavista we set sail for the island of Sao Vicente 130 miles to the west, passing several other islands en route. Sao Vicente itself is a tiny mountainous and barren island, but contains the second largest town in the country - Mindelo - situated in what is considered to be the best natural harbour in the eastern Atlantic. The approach is extraordinary, past spectacular sea cliffs without any trace of habitation until, rounding a headland the great ugly commercial harbour with its associated oil storage tanks, cranes and rusting hulks comes unexpectedly into view. Mindelo was developed as a bunkering station in the days of coal in the nineteenth century and something of the atmosphere remains - perhaps the sheer unlikeliness of its simply being there, in such a remote location. Drawing closer into the harbour, the anchorage becomes quite picturesque, backed by the very colourful town. Mindelo is a bustling place which we enjoyed getting to know as we scurried around making final preparations for our departure. The produce market was full of plenty after the scarcity on Boavista, and the fish market full of people strolling around with great dark red carcasses of tuna in large washing-up bowls on their heads! Food and meals were rather expensive, but balanced out by ridiculously cheap fuel and gas.

The cultural highlight of Mindelo is its music scene. Music is an important and flourishing feature of Cape Verdean life - in particular the 'morna' - a hauntingly bitter-sweet ballad style. We spent a memorable evening in the curiously named 'My Coffee' bar, listening to a girl singer and band, captivated by these achingly beautiful songs. Also while on Sao Vicente we spent a day on the much larger neighbouring island of Santo Antao travelling, with some trepidation, across the ten mile strait on the antiquated local rust-bucket ferry. I wish now I hadn't used up all my superlatives to describe Madeira and Tenerife. Santo Antao beats them all with the most astounding and fantastic mountain landscapes. The road from coast to coast is a cobbled masterpiece crossing the island on ridges high, high up in the mountains, some sections shrouded in cloud and with frequent sheer drops down to the flat ribeiras below. The island is fertile with quite astonishing terracing up and down its near vertical slopes. People live in hamlets dotted all around these mountains - their experience of life unimaginably different to ours.

We were very glad to have been to the Cape Verdes, not just for themselves, but also because we re-established contact with old friends there, and made some new ones. It felt good to feel back in the yachting community. We were also listening avidly to the various short-wave radio nets operating among boats already on the Atlantic crossing. Listening to these boats reporting in their positions and conditions daily gave us a feel for the Atlantic before we even started and made it appear less daunting, despite the fact that several were experiencing rather contrary conditions. A new radio net formed - the 'Big Fish Net' - with boats leaving both the Canaries and Cape Verdes at exactly the right period for us to be among them. Even better, we formed a 'mini-net' with a couple of boats leaving Mindelo at around the same time as us. We spoke to them twice daily comparing notes all the way across.

By the time we were ready to set off on the big crossing, our main feeling was of excited anticipation. The next time we saw anyone, it would be in the Caribbean! However, the Atlantic is the Atlantic, and we certainly felt some apprehension at the prospect ahead of us. Boats starting out earlier had experienced calms and even adverse winds. We hoped that we had left late enough for the Trade Winds to establish properly, and it was looking good as we started on the 2018 mile passage.

The first half of the voyage was entirely uneventful. The trade winds did indeed seem set and we had wind constantly from the east, sometimes with a little north or south in it. Strengths were variable but always manageable and we were pleased with our daily runs. We had left knowing that unless we had a faster than average passage, we would not make Barbados in time for Christmas, and had accepted the prospect of a Christmas at sea. Our only complaint during this first half was the constant rolling motion that frequently made activities like cooking, or even sleeping somewhat tedious, and a dearth of marine life to observe. This was perhaps not surprising in view of our rather successful fishing activities! We had bought an extremely lurid looking orange rubber squid lure in Mindelo, which dorado seemed to find irresistible. Any time we wanted a fish, one would be there for the asking. We hauled these beautiful bright blue creatures in with a mixture of elation and guilt, killing them kindly with whisky, rather than bashing them over the head! The trouble was we couldn't specify what type of fish we required, and after a couple a dorado we might have liked something different!

The day we reached our half way point was marked by a slight drama. We had wanted to ensure reaching this point before nightfall so that we could celebrate together, but were worried because we were having a slowish day. However, that anxiety was as nothing to what followed when Chris tried to start the engine to charge the batteries (a daily routine) - to find not a spark of life. Chris was brilliant. I spent the next few hours in denial, devising yet more dorado recipes, trying to stave off an incipient nervous breakdown. Meanwhile, Chris imperturbably and methodically investigated the problem, found it - a faulty wiring connection - and fixed it. We reached 1009 miles just in time for 'Happy Hour' and celebrated with a bottle of wine called 'Atlantis', while listening to tapes of steel bands and reggae to put us in Caribbean mode.

The second half of the voyage had a more uneasy feel to it. The weather, which had been entirely benign, became more volatile and there was always the unnerving prospect of night-time squalls. The seas became even lumpier causing an appalling rolling motion much worse than we had experienced before (except on the passage to Peniche - our benchmark). However, we found that having reached a peak of excrutiating tiredness, we could then sleep despite being rolled bodily from side to side - it can be done. In the event, we were extremely lucky and encountered very few and only minor squalls, in contrast to the conditions reported by some of the boats around us. The moon was getting larger and brighter, and with us for longer each night during this period - a big plus, and with generally good wind, the likelihood of getting to Barbados in time for Christmas was increasing.

We are not the most aggressive sailors - usually content to settle for an average of 100 - 120 miles per day. However, we had told ourselves we must push harder during this crossing. Keeping in close touch by radio with the two other boats crossing at the same time as us provided the spur we needed. They were both catamarans and obviously faster than us and we were constantly aware of each others' positions. We left the day before they did and were not ashamed to arrive the day after them, with a daily average of 126 miles, ranging between 99 and 159 miles. The crossing was hard work in terms of sail changing. There are infinite permutations of downwind rigs. We tried most of them, and they are all laborious and time consuming to set up - but then we weren't doing anything else! We would sometimes take a couple of hours to set up a rig - only to find no difference in speed - and so have to think of something else - in baking hot sun - poor us !! We found the cruising chute on one side and the genoa on the other, both poled out, a good combination in light winds. In stronger wind we would goosewing with the main sail. Generally speaking the cruising chute was very effective for downwind work poled out, so we never actually tried the spinnaker. A decision we always found hard to make was how much to reef down overnight. Given that the hours of darkness in the tropics are equal to the daylight hours, we could not bear to loose speed, but on the other hand, did not want to find ourselves over-stretched in a squall in the dark. Our most dramatic moment - luckily not at night and not in a squall - was when the snuffer of the cruising chute got itself tangled with the top of the furler, so that we could neither furl in the genny nor snuff the cruising chute. Rather than have Chris up the mast in a rolling sea (which he was quite keen to do!), we managed to bring both sails down in tandem and sort out the muddle - but it took a long time and caused some stress!

The final 24 hours of the voyage were in the biggest seas and winds we had experienced and we stormed in towards Barbados with a new record daily run of 159 miles. Hectic but tremendously exciting. On one of Chris' watches that night, a massive wave caught us on the side, dumped water on me asleep below and hurled the cutlery drawer and its contents all over the saloon. I slept through it - maybe I am becoming a real sailor! The coastline of Barbados came into view at about 9am, low-lying, undramatic and looking about as exotic as the Isle of Wight - a pleasingly soothing sight. We arrived on 23rd December after a passage of 16 days, much faster than we had expected - pretty pleased with ourselves!

All of a sudden Christmas was upon us - quite a change of gear. Shopping in Bridgetown on Christmas Eve was as hectic as anywhere else - with added Caribbean frenzy. We had lots of friends to meet and socialising to be done. The evening of Christmas Eve was spent in a 'conger' line of dinghies processing around the yacht anchorage singing carols! Christmas day was brilliant. Starting with food preparation to the accompaniment of carols on the local radio from St John's Sunday School Choir in Bridgetown, then a swim, then over to a boat for Bucks Fizz, before the main event of the day - a bring-your-own beach picnic with crews from all the 60 or so boats anchored in the bay. A fabulous day. We met two boats from Bristol, one - An Cala - we had met briefly in May just before Stu and Angela left Bristol.

We have not been able to tear ourselves from the Atlantic quite yet. Whilst we were terribly lucky with no major problems, we heard over the radio of several boats experiencing difficulties during the crossing. One skipper suffered a heart attack on passage. Another yacht made a rendezvous with them to transfer two crew members, one a nurse and, until within helicopter range, they kept in close contact by radio with a doctor on board a third yacht. A dramatic rescue is currently taking place - of British yacht Sukanuk which experienced first of all an engine failure which after days and days of struggle could not be fixed. It was then dismasted in a squall. One of the Big Fish boats went back 30 miles to meet them and set up a tow - 500 miles from Antigua in big seas. Another boat is heading in their direction to lend them a jury rig. A superyacht - has now set off from Antigua with huge amounts of fuel, equipment and a big strong crew to take over the tow. Others are standing by to help if needed. It is all extremely inspiring. As one of the Big Fish boats said "we cruising boats look after our own". It is a great privilege to feel part of such a community.